Gleanings from Text
Part 1 (vv. 18-22): Unlike much of the monologue-heavy Fourth Gospel, the narrator packs many verbs and objects into a few tight, complex verses (v. 15 especially). We are given the impression of a dramatically chaotic and confused scene, with many people and animals tumbling over each other.
This pericope directly follows the wedding at Cana and sharply contrasts Jesus’ dangerous public activities with his private life. Narrative arrangement is very important; the Fourth Gospel is the only one that places this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
Part 2 (vv. 18-22 or -25, depending on where you choose to end the pericope): Jesus’ words in the second part play on several interpretative levels. The literal understanding, with the Temple seen as a physical building, is put in the mouths of “the Jews.” The narrator, however, reminds the readers of the truth of the resurrection. As per usual in the Gospel of John, misunderstanding accompanies Jesus’ words.
This story is read in the context of Judaic worship history and the Temple cult, in which animals are brought for sacrifice during Passover. In Jesus’ day, since many people traveled long distances to the Temple, they had to buy their animals in Jerusalem, and were required to exchange their money for the Temple tax into currency of Tyre (since all Roman currency bore the image of Caesar) (Lev. 1, 3).
As opposed to the synoptic versions, Jesus doesn’t call the activities in the Temple a “den of robbers” (Isa. 56.7, Jer. 7.11), instead alluding to Zech. 14.21 with a play on “house” (oikos): his Father’s house has become “a house of trade” or “market-place.” This charge is much more radical an accusation and condemnation than calling it a “den of robbers,” hitting at the very foundation of the cultic tradition, and not just its abuses.
Food for Thought
In this story (read together with 1:51), we learn that God’s locus on earth has moved from the Temple to Jesus’ body. As the entire Fourth Gospel is written from a post-resurrection perspective, this understanding of Jesus’ body and personhood as the Word is a key interpretative lens.
The disciples later remembered Jesus’ words about the Temple being rebuilt. In the Fourth Gospel, “remembering” is an active aspect of discipleship, aided by the Spirit, which leads to faith and deepened understanding (see 12.16). In the confrontation between Jesus and the authoritative figures of the Temple cult, we see that the early church already equated Jesus’ words with the authority of Scripture.
As always in the Fourth Gospel, we must tread cautiously around the text’s history of anti-Semitic interpretation. Most scholars believe that this text was written by Jews, exiled from the synagogue, who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. This is insider language, borne of grief, distance and change.
Sink Your Teeth Into This
This story has been illustrated many times. I’ve seen some paintings that show Jesus poised like a boxer with clenched fists; some that show Jesus enraged, seemingly berserk, swinging a whip above his head; and some that focus instead on the confusion of the money lenders and terrified beasts. All of these scenes are set in the beauty and glory of the Temple architecture, so reminiscent of some of today’s finest churches.
Just as varied are the scholarly interpretations. Is this a demonstration against corruption? A cleansing? A purging? A personal affront? Would we be relieved, confused, or embarrassed by Jesus’ display today, if it happened in our places of worship?
There is a lot of pain in this text, as there is in the PC(USA) and our state and national governments as we undergo times of discernment.
Dodd, C.H., The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, Cambridge at the University Press, Cambridge, 1965.
“Jesus Drives out the Money-Changers.” Jacopo Bassano, 16th Century.
“Jesus Purges the Temple at Jerusalem.” Alexandre Bida, 19th Century.
The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol IX: Luke, John; Leander E. Keck (Senior New Testament Editor), Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1995. Pp. 541-545.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV with the Apocrypha, Michael D. Coogan (editor), Oxford University Press, 2001.
O’Day, Gail, “John: Introduction,” The Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (editors), Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1992.
Esta Jarrett (M.Div., M.A.C.E., and Th.M.), originally from Newport News, VA, is a 2007 and 2008 graduate of Union PSCE. She is currently enrolled in CPE at St. Francis hospital.